Comment and analysis: Authoritarianism by decree in Tunisia

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East CorrespondentMonday 17 October 2022

The ever more authoritarian rule of President Qais Saied is moving the country away from democracy and rule of law, plunging it into uncertainty.

It would normally be a day for celebrating people’s power and the hard-won democratic advances in the small Mediterranean country of Tunisia, but this nation’s December 17 parliamentary elections may in fact be the last nail in the coffin of the country’s 10-year brush with democracy and the rule of law.

The elections will be the culmination of a series of controversial moves by the country’s increasingly authoritarian President Qais Saied, a former jurist, to turn his back on the country’s laws, consolidate more power in his own hands and elevate the office of the presidency above the country’s checks and balances.

Almost all of the influential political parties have announced that they will be staying away in protest of Saied’s two-year campaign, to reverse progress made after the toppling of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. And like with the previous dictator, they say they don’t even trust the elections will be free and fair.

Restless Arab masses, supporters of the ruling regimes argued, are better off with decisive authoritarian governments

The Free Constitutional Party and the Islamist-oriented Ennahda, the two main parties, had said the December 17 voting will only serve Saied’s despotic agenda. In October, five more parties - Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labor and Freedoms), Attayar (Democratic Current), Al Qotb (The Pole), Al Joumhouri (Republican Party) and the Workers' Party – joined the call which has now been accepted by nearly 90 percent of political parties, according to the local press. Al Joumhouri Secretary-General Issam Chabbi said the elections will be ‘the final step of (Saied’s) political agenda…in the wake of his coup against the constitution and legitimacy.’

Peddling authoritarianism

Since the Arab Spring toppled long-time rulers such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Moammer Qaddafi in Libya, rattling the remaining regimes, there have been attempts to show that democracy can’t deliver for the public. Restless Arab masses, supporters of the ruling regimes argued, are better off with decisive authoritarian governments, often led by the military and bankrolled by rich Gulf Arab monarchies. This counter-revolution has made major advances in Sudan and Egypt while direct foreign intervention in Syria and Yemen, has led to civil wars.

Of all the countries that saw pro-democracy protests in the Middle East, Tunisia remained a source of hope in the face of powerful push-back to limit freedoms and liberties for the 420 million people who live the Arab region. This was until President Saied came to office in October 2019 ironically in free and democratic elections.

The 64-year old law professor has increasingly aligned himself with strongmen in the region such as Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, Egypt’s Abdelfatah Sisi and the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed. All of them believe that giving any ground will give rise to staunch rivals such as the Islamists or pro-Western democrats.

In Saied’s case, he capitalised on a growing sense of disillusionment among the 12 million population after a decade-long experiment with democracy brought few economic benefits. Saied marketed his embrace of a one-man rule as an answer to how democracy has failed the masses who went out and protested in 2010 and 2011. Many are indeed frustrated with how free elections led not to economic prosperity but to the creation of constantly-bickering politicians who neither improved the lives of Tunisians nor fought corruption. The Islamist Ennahda Party and secularists parties engaged in futile ideological squabbles often on splashy TV talk shows while neglecting the economy, one of the main drivers of the Arab Spring.

Saied defends decisions, such as the controversial dissolution of parliament last year, by saying that he is taking away power from those corrupt politicians to place it directly in the hands of the people.

He also asserts that economic woes, such as run-away inflation and unemployment, are unfixable under a democratic system. His intervention came as an avalanche or, as opponents put it, an ‘arsenal’ of decrees. These were not economic but mainly political in nature. While some of his measures were popular such as stripping immunity from some politicians, now many question them as backsliding on the country’s young democracy.

The crackdown

In mid-September, Saied, yet again using his legal expertise, issued a law by decree to crackdown on ‘cyber-crime’, imposing prison sentences and fines for those who spread fake information and rumors online. A five-year prison term awaits those charged with ‘harming national security or defense’. News outlets can be shut for a least year for a ‘cyber crime’ such as criticizing the country’s political system, the judiciary or the military.

Yassine Jelassi, president of National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), compared the decree to the repressive laws used by former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. ‘The decree is a new setback for rights and freedoms,’ he said. ‘The penalties for publishing in any networks are a strong blow to the revolutionary values that granted freedom to all journalists and all Tunisians.’

In August, Saied had offered a referendum to replace the democratically-drafted constitution of 2014 with a new controversial charter that changes the country from parliamentary to presidential. The new constitution was conceived, and some say directly penned, by Saied himself using his background as a constitutional law professor. Saied, expectedly, won the referendum. His supporters hailed the result as reflecting the ambitions of Tunisians.

They failed however to note that the referendum was actually held under a state of emergency and that there were complaints of inadequate public debate and participation by ordinary Tunisians. No minimum threshold for turnout was required either and Saied used state resources to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote. Some local elections observers and journalists were barred from voting locations while some opposition media outlets had already been shut down. Many opponents of Saied boycotted the vote altogether saying his proposals would expand his powers and turn Tunisia into a semi-authoritarian state. The turnout was 30.2 percent. By contrast, the 2014 constitution was approved by a broad consensus, including several secular parties.

Unlike the involvement of civil society during the 2014 constitution - which was led by the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, whose effort later earned it the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize - Saied’s constitution was drafted mostly behind closed doors with little civil society input. The vote was criticized as another attempt at a power grab by Saied. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a rare statement urging Saied to return to the transparent and inclusive system of democratic governance the Tunisian people won more than a decade ago. ‘We urge President Saied to work constructively with all Tunisians, end the state of emergency, and take steps to restore Tunisia’s separation of powers, democratic institutions, and the rule of law,’ the statement said.

Troubles ahead

Internally, many Tunisians have chosen to remain disengaged, preferring a wait-and-see approach before judging whether his changes can produce results. So far, Saied’s political measures have not brought any improvements. The country faces foreign debt default risks while inflation is rising and quality of life is falling as shortages of staples persist and increasing numbers of Tunisians say they are looking to move out of the country. Saied insists his measures will bring in foreign investments and loans from international institutions such as the IMF. IMF recommendations, however, may harbor social unrest as they include unpopular measures such as cutting the civil service wage bill, privatization, which means lay-offs, and phasing out energy subsidies, all of which are opposed by the unions.

With Tunisia on the brink of economic collapse, Saied may be setting the scene for a complete political breakdown. This could invite an intervention from the military, now the second most influential actor in Tunisia after Saied.

Image credit: francovolpato/

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